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Nancy Smith

Ringling Brothers, Martin County Taxpayers and Lawyer-Led Activists

May 18, 2014 - 6:00pm

Riddle: What do Ringling Brothers and the taxpayers of Martin County, Fla., have in common?

Answer: Both were victimized in court by lawyer-led activist groups, both lawsuits were declared frivolous and in both cases the parties filing them were ordered to pay court costs and/or damages.

Actually, the Ringling Brothers case ended in a settlement in federal court Thursday, when a number of animal rights groups agreed to pay a combined $15.75 million to Feld Entertainment, Ringlings Florida-based corporate parent.

In both cases, we're talking about the kissin' cousins of the legal profession -- environmental attorneys and animal welfare attorneys. Both do their best to take important areas -- areas where Americans feel a deep connection to policy and practice -- and twist them for profit in the name of righteousness. The end always justifies the means with these people.

Here's what happened in the case of Ringling Brothers, newer of the two cases:

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and a former elephant handler for the circus and others originally filed suit in 2000 against Feld Entertainment, producer of the circus. They accused the company of mistreating the Asian elephants that perform in its shows.

The case, which cited the Endangered Species Act, was initially dismissed.

This is where it coulda/shoulda ended. OK, the groups abhor the use of animals in circuses and they gave it a shot. But could they let it go? Of course not. Attorneys call the shots with these folks, and attorneys said onward.

The case dragged on because an appellate court allowed the former elephant handler, Tom Rider, to pursue an individual claim that he was emotionally injured by the company's treatment of its elephants. Rider's job between 1997 and 1999 was to watch over and feed the elephants while working for the circus as a "barn man."

Well, the court wouldn't have it. After a trial in 2009, a district court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of Feld Entertainment. It found that Rider had overstated his love of elephants and was not a sufficiently credible plaintiff for the case to proceed.

The judge declared Rider to be essentially a "paid plaintiff," finding that his only source of income during the previous eight years had been the animal-welfare groups involved in the case and media companies producing reports about it.

Animal welfare activists had actually propped him up like a scarecrow in a cornfield. Their money kept Rider going forward with the case, fed moral outrage -- which gloriously aided the groups' fundraising -- and kept the circus knee-deep in legal expense.

Next thing you know, Feld Entertainment turned around and sued Rider and the animal welfare groups, accusing them of abuse of process, malicious prosecution and violation of federal racketeering laws through unfounded litigation. Feld had them over a barrel.The ASPCA opted out in the end, agreeing to settle, but declaring that the agreement shouldn't be taken as an admission of wrongdoing.

Now let's remember a prior case in Martin County involving so-called "environmental groups" and the attorneys who pull their strings.

It's not remotely on the same scale as the Feld/Ringling Brothers case, but it certainly is closely related. It involved the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ordering environmental attorneyRichard Grosso to repay court costs because he filed a frivolous appeal in a Martin County land use case.

The case it involves was a County Commission vote in 2009to reduce the minimum lot size on 191,000 agricultural acres in western Martin County from 20 to 2 acres. The idea was to pave the way for clustered development,an avenue for saving green space and allowing rural property owners to trade large parcels for development credits.

Grosso and his clients, 1000 Friends of Florida and Martin County Conservation Alliance, didn't like it and, even though it'salmost universally considered a good and ecological thing and sound policy to help the damaged Everglades, they sued Martin County, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and various development interests. They lost. And they were sanctionedfor wasting everybody's time and money.

It might not have been a landmark case, but it was close. Like the Ringling Brothers decision, it struck a knockout blow to all who would raise "meritless appellate arguments on the chance they will 'stick.'"

Unfortunately for the taxpayers in Martin County, the story took a bizarre turn after the 1st DCA's ruling. The parties that sued and lost -- same ones who have cost Martin taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in costly, unsuccessful lawsuits over many years -- had become the Martin County Commission. They are now virtually running the county.

So the guilty parties ended up negotiating with themselves.

What should have been a financial return of some $35,000, maybe more, turned into a cash payday of $2,500 for the revenue-short taxpayers of Martin County. Pennies on the dollar. No wonder it was all worked out behind closed doors, never reported in a public meeting, never found in the local newspaper, even after the settlement was a done deal.

But in the end, the point was made, as it was in the Ringling Brothers case. Activist groups that depend on taking the bite out of corporations in court as a punitive instrument are beginning to get a second look. The reason is simple: animal welfare groups and environmental groups, taken as collective nouns, as collectives who huddle together for every legal strike, are themselves corporations.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in the Huffington Post,"I am sure it pains every animal protection advocate to think that Feld gets any money from animal protection groups. But that is the risk of litigation that challenges major corporations, who lawyer-up and file retaliatory grudge actions."

Grudge actions? Pacelle actually looks at the circus people's suit to get their money back as a SLAPP suit. As if they have no grievance. They're supposed to go along for years fighting a disingenuous lawsuit claim, forking over court costs, apparently until they're broken.

Let these decisions be a lesson in caution for the leaders of activist organizations to pay closer attention to where their attorneys are leading them. Both decisions were victories because in both cases, the appeals filed weren't about land use or circus elephants. They were about protesting through litigation to excess. When common sense saidquit while you can but they didn't.

Judges -- more and more, anyway -- are prepared to sever litigation at the head when it's patently, egregiously wrong.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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